In the first four years of the project, Allina Health (a not-for-profit health-care system) invested about $5 million (some of the NIH projects cost upwards of $80 million). With about 80 heart attacks in New Ulm every year, direct costs of treating the heart attacks is about $4 million a year. If HONU could reduce the number of heart attacks by just one-quarter, it could save $10 million over 10 years. If you take into account the indirect costs of missed work, decreased productivity and short-term disability, the savings are even greater.
And when you consider that the risk factors for heart disease (the ones that HONU is trying to reduce—cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, obesity) are also risk factors for several other major diseases (cancer, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease), the town should see substantial reduction in risk for those diseases as well.
Studies have shown that the return on investment for programs that help promote healthy living and prevent disease is consistently 3:1. HONU is expected to be similar, thus saving a lot more money with prevention than would be spent on treatment.
Boucher and her team have also won a federal appropriation plus about $1.4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and United Healthcare. The latter grant includes a more intensive approach to reducing obesity, including creating a community challenge for everyone to maintain or lose weight; if the town succeeds, it can earn up to $100,000 toward a project citizens would vote on, like a new park.
The team chose New Ulm, a town of about 14,000, because, despite the brats, butter and beer culture, the town’s Chamber of Commerce recently listed health as one of the town’s top three goals for the community, and its people are easy to study since they are served by a single medical center with electronic health records. Plus, New Ulm, with its biggest-this, oldest-that mentality, was ripe for a challenge. Boucher says, “There’s this social pressure and competitiveness, that we want to show that our community can do this.”